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Jewish World Review March 6, 2002 / 22 Adar 5762

Philip Terzian

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Will anchor for food | YOU would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the prospect of network executives replacing "Nightline" with "Late Night with David Letterman." Since word was leaked that ABC was trying to lure David Letterman away from CBS -- casting "Nightline" and its famous anchorman, Ted Koppel, adrift -- the print media (as the TV people like to call it) has been beside itself with concern.

Of course, Koppel was not born yesterday; and for the first week or so he let his friends and admirers at The New York Times do the dirty work. Day after day there were stories about the new "bottom-line" mentality in TV news, the anguish of "Nightline" staffers, Ted Koppel's sense of betrayal, the erosion of quality in broadcast journalism, even a long account of the troubled relations between Letterman and the CBS president, Leslie Moonves. Then the herd of independent minds started moving across the prairie.

The Times coverage was followed by sorrowful stories in USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and the rest, lamenting the imminent demise of a priceless institution and the displacement of news judgment for profit-mindedness on television.

Finally, Koppel himself took his shotgun down from the wall, and fired a blast across the network bow. In an essay stripped across the top of the op-ed page of The New York Times, he not only declared that the program he has anchored for the past 20 years provides "a genuine public service," but disputed the notion (expressed by one anonymous ABC executive) that "Nightline" is no longer "relevant."

"I would argue," wrote Koppel, "that in these times, when homeland security is an ongoing concern, when another terrorist attack may, at any time, shatter our sense of normality, when American troops are engaged in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia, when the likelihood of military action against Iraq is growing -- when, in short, the regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever -- it is, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, malicious to describe what my colleagues and I are doing as lacking relevance."

You could almost hear the great man speaking the words into the camera -- followed by, "We'll return after these messages."

Forgive me if I have some difficulty sharing the nation's distress on this one. For not only has Ted Koppel, working three nights a week for $8 million a year, been treated in all this as some sort of national treasure, but neither he nor his admirers in the print media have said anything to contradict that anonymous executive.

For the fact is that, since the advent of cable TV, "Nightline" has become increasingly irrelevant. If your idea of "regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy" consists of gathering a trio of retired generals, pop psychologists or airline pilots together for a dozen minutes of nonstop blather, then you can get it on MSNBC, Fox, C-SPAN, CNN, PBS, CNBC and a host of assorted outlets, day or night, not to mention the weekend gabfests on NBC, ABC and CBS. In many instances, these programs are not only as portentous and predictable as "Nightline," but the anchormen (or women) are considerably prettier than Ted Koppel.

Moreover, the arguments on behalf of "Nightline" are, essentially, fallacious. Nobody turns to television for "regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy" because they know they won't find it. They tune in to get a sense of the headlines, and hear what the Afghan foreign minister, or Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, looks and sounds like.

And the idea that network greed is destroying the integrity of television news is a perennial howler. As long ago as 1966 CBS News President Fred Friendly quit in a huff because network President Frank Stanton preferred to broadcast reruns of "I Love Lucy" instead of the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam. Who was wiser, in that instance? Every few years, when a new class of overpaid correspondents is forced into comfortable pensions by heartless executives, we are admonished to remember the golden age of -- Connie Chung? Frank Reynolds? John Cameron Swayze? Jessica Savitch? J. Fred Muggs?

To be sure, this public humiliation by Mr. Koppel's employer must be considerably galling. Not so long ago, when Michael Dukakis was running for president, it was bruited about in the news magazines that Ted Koppel was contemplating trading the burden of anchoring "Nightline" for public service, and that nothing less than Secretary of State would match his talents. To have come so close to being John Foster Dulles, and end up being displaced by Stupid Pet Tricks, cannot be painless.

But then again, eight million a year can ease a considerable amount of discomfort.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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